Monday, October 20, 2014

Is winning elections all that matters in democracy? What about values and the rules of conduct?

For a pregnant Sunday morning, only hours before history opens a new page, some timely queries: Is the NCP a Naturally Corrupt Party as Narendra Modi says it is? Is Narendra Modi lowering the dignity of prime ministership by resorting to cheap electioneering as Sharad Pawar says he is? Has the BJP betrayed Hindutva by ditching the Shiv Sena as Uddhav Thackeray says it has? Is Modi a street-level operator as the Congress says he is?

Elections are the feather on India's democratic cap, but the electioneering style of our leaders and parties often turn the cap into a crown of dishonour. In the last election, a Congress spokesman called Modi Yamaraj. Sonia Gandhi had called him a merchant of death. Karnataka's Deve Gowda once called B.S. Yeddyurappa a b...d. Degradation reached its nadir when Congress spokesman Manish Tiwari described Anna Hazare in 2011 as "corrupt from head to toe". He didn't stop at that. Addicted to bombastic language, he called Anna Hazare's associates "armchair fascists, overground Maoists, closet anarchists funded by invisible donors". Tragic fellow, he had to swallow every one of those words later.

Electioneering is not meant to go below the belt. In fact its central principle is respect for opponents and dignified conduct in both action and words. Candidates explain their position on various issues, and then leave it to voters to make their choice as they deem fit. One political figure who strictly adhered to this principled approach was V.K.Krishna Menon. Honed by prolonged exposure to politics in St.Pancras, London, where he was a popularly elected Borough Councillor for several years, his campaigns in Bombay never saw an adverse remark against his opponents, even when the opponents attacked him personally.

In Maharashtra this time personal attacks were the norm. Actually they were not necessary in the light of a clear shift in the BJP's strategy. There was no Amit Shah domination in Maharashtra, there was only Narendra Modi. There was no Yogi Adityanath, there was only Narendra Modi. There was no love jihad, no Muzaffarnagar, there was only Narendra Modi. Modi's mass appeal combined with the imbecilities of rival parties to put the stars on Modi's side. The NCP projected the horror of the widely disliked Ajit Pawar becoming chief minister; the Shiv Sena's Uddhav Thackeray showed immaturity by insisting on chief minister nomination in advance unlike his smarter father who wanted the remote control firmly in his hand; the other bash-Biharis Sena outraged even the Election Commission by saying that non-Marathis wouldn't be allowed to enter Mumbai; and the Congress is still trying to figure out what's going on. Yes, the stars are on Modi's side.

In the long term, though, it is a question of culture. Politics diminishes the cultural worth of its practitioners. The need for votes is so overwhelming that morality becomes irrelevant. This is true of the supposedly mature democracies as well. It is part of political folklore that the 1960 US presidential race was decided by television. In the TV debate John Kennedy appeared cool and well-groomed while Richard Nixon looked unshaved and sweating. Both had cheated behind the cameras. There was an agreement that they would not use make-up for the programme. But Kennedy had a team of professionals to put on a layer of make-up. Nixon used a common product called Lazy Shave to conceal his 5 o'clock shadow - with little effect. Nixon was known to sweat easily, so his team kept the studio thermostats down. Kennedy's team secretly raised the temperature. Kennedy won.

Such tactics touched an alltime low in the George Bush years. In the primaries in 2000 the clean and upright John McCain was a formidable opponent, campaigning with a Bangladeshi daughter he had adopted from Mother Teresa's orphanage. George Bush's campaign strategists conducted a phony poll asking people: Would you vote for John McCain if you knew that he had fathered an illegitimate black child? That was the end of McCain's campaign. The victorious Bush went on to ruin Iraq and give an unprecedented fillip to the growth of terrorism in the world.

The moral is clear. What ultimately matters is not this party or that leader, but what happens to the quality of democracy. In the first quarter century of independence elections enhanced our democracy. After the Emergency, it has been down hill because the culture changed. First-past-the-post became literally the watchword, no matter what tactics were used. Winning alone mattered, morality be damned.

How will it be from now on?

Monday, October 13, 2014

Was Pakistan testing Modi? ISI's foolishness subverts collective progress that awaits South Asia

Suddenly reality is catching with Narendra Modi and India. We are learning that showmanship can go thus far and no further. The first hint came when the Chinese President's visit coincided with stepped-up Chinese incursions in Ladakh. The message was that China's Big Brother posture in Asia was not negotiable and all the Ahmedabad hoopla was just hoopla. Then, so soon after the Pakistani Prime Minister's attendance at Modi's swearing-in, a war-like crisis developed along the Jammu border. The message was that in Pakistan the army was the shot-caller and all the photo-ops of the country's ceremonial Prime Minister were just photo-ops.

What drives the Pakistani army is visceral hatred of India. It must have intensified with the rise of Narendra Modi whom they see as anti-Muslim. The audacity of the latest shelling was in all probability meant to test the Modi Government. If so, Pakistan badly miscalculated. For one thing, as the Home Minister said, there is a new reality in India and the Defence Minister spelt it out by saying that Pakistan would have to pay a price it could not afford. For another, despite all the divisiveness that marks Indian democracy, Pakistan will find that a threat it mounts will unite all Indians. Narendra Modi will then be the leader of India, not just a BJP Prime Minister.

Pakistan has got the message and the guns are falling silent. But that should not lull India into complacency because there are organic weaknesses in India's position. Chinese and Pakistani border incursions have been rather frequent occurrences, yet each time we are surprised and seem freshly hurt. The reason is that over half a century our defence and foreign policy establishments have not developed a comprehensive policy architecture to deal with issues of complexity. Ours is an ad hoc approach. China is famous for functioning with the stability of a hundred-year vision. Indian leaders' vision rarely extends beyond the next general election, party labels making no difference. Even Pakistan has a policy stability vis a vis India. Governments rise and collapse, civic upheavals come and go, but the ultra-efficient Inter-Services Intelligence remains consistently pro-active in its destabilisation strategy against India. The pattern never varies: ISI acts, India reacts.

The ISI is lucky, too, for opportunities come its way unasked. Kashmir's devastating floods were utilised to spread disaffection among the locals. An unexpected crump came from Narendra Modi himself. Carried away by his triumphalism in the US, the Prime Minister announced some timely and imaginative reforms for NRIs such as lifelong visas and lifting of harassment checks. Additionally, however, Modi also announced visa-on-arrival facility for every American citizen. It was an American citizen named David Headley who roamed India freely and frequently, working out the logistics for the Mumbai terror attack. Worse, after his guilt was uncovered, the US Government extended full protection to him. Criminals with an American passport will now find it easier to collaborate with the ISI. Of course all Americans are not criminals. All Indians are not terrorists either, but try saying that to US immigration officials.

Unfortunately, all the consistency and luck of the ISI will not help Pakistan because it is fundamentally flawed as a state. The ruling elite turned it into a self-defeating "warrior state". McGill University Professor T. V. Paul argues in his acclaimed The Warrior State: Pakistan in the Contemporary World that Pakistan's enviable position as "the pivot of the world" (Jinnah's phrase) actually turned out to be its curse. The generous largesse from foreign aid-givers prevented the elite from seeking a more sustainable developmental path. Besides, the lack of domestic reforms, especially land reforms, and the inattention to education at all levels crippled Pakistan's ability to progress.

Correcting this course is what Pakistan should do for its own good. It must aim at economic growth as was done by other geostrategically located states such as Israel, South Korea and Taiwan. Nawaz Sharief, a businessman, knows this, hence his emphasis on normal trade relations with India. Narendra Modi knows that Pakistan's economic progress will be good for all of South Asia. Anxious to prove that he is not anti-Muslim, Modi will probably go beyond the extra mile for normalcy across the border. Which means that there has never been a more propitious time for collective progress. Even the Nobel Committee underlined this by linking Malala Yousafsai and Kailash Satyarthi in a historic peace gesture. The ISI has conceded that it's not up to a war. Why can't it settle for peace?

Monday, October 6, 2014

Brutal Jihadi terrorism, now a fashion among youth. US blunders helped; so did Wahabism and Pakistan

So it's out in the open: Terrorism is the issue of our times. It was a central theme in Narendra Modi's discussion with Israel's Netanyahu, a veteran on the subject. It was the main focus of attention during the Modi-Obama talks. The US President went to the extent of agreeing to make efforts to dismantle safe havens for terror and to disrupt financial and tactical support to terror outfits, naming some based in Pakistan.

Honourable intentions. If even half of it became real, the world could heave a sigh of relief. The problem is that both Israel and the US see the issue in terms of good terrorism and bad terrorism, a differentiation that makes a mockery of the fight against terrorism.Remember how America agreed with Pakistan that the "good Taliban" must be accepted? As for Israel, the first recorded terrorist putsch was by a Jewish political movement called Zealots in 66-70. As good terrorists resenting the occupation of their homeland by foreign forces, they organised a mass insurrection against the Romans. It failed and the Zealots committed mass suicide. The modern state of Israel is still engaged in eradicating bad terrorism, this time represented by the Palestinians. In the latest flareup a few weeks ago, it was merciless in bombing civilians in the Gaza Strip ignoring worldwide protests, including by Israelis. How sad that the job of good terrorists is often thankless.

The American record has hurt the world even more grievously. Its policies have repeatedly produced the contrary effect. Three years ago it started a "humanitarian war" to achieve a regime change in Libya. The goal was achieved leading to Muammar Gaddafi's murder. But the situation in Libya went from bad to worse with daily deaths becoming part of the political chaos. America built up Bin Laden's Al Qaeda in order to drive the Russians out of Afghanistan. The goal was achieved but Al Qaeda became a Frankenstein's monster targetting America. America started the Iraqi war to eliminate Saddam Hussain. The goal was achieved but Iraq turned into a mess, culminating in the birth of the cruellest terrorist outfit in history, the Islamic State, the self-proclaimed Caliphate. Obama was forced to admit openly that American intelligence had underestimated the rise of the Islamic State (IS).

To say that it was underestimated is an understatement. More frenzied than the Zealots of old, the IS jihadists are unlike anything the world has ever seen before. US airstrikes have been destroying some lifelines of the IS such as gas plants and grain silos. But the jihadists keep advancing. A Sunni group, they give no quarter even to other Muslims; Shias, as well as non-Muslims, must either convert or die. This has alarmed even countries like Saudi Arabia and Qatar who were suppliers of funds and weapons in the early days. Many Muslim authorities have gone public with statements that the IS is not representative of true Islam.

That has not stopped the IS from becoming a fashion among young men, however small in numbers. The hooded killer who beheaded Westerners in Syria recently was a British citizen. There is a Sharia4Belgium group in that small country. According to Western estimates, 300 Belgians, 400 Germans, 800 Russians, 80 Swedes, 70 Danes, 50 Norwegians and 60 Australians are among 30,000 IS fighters. Dozens of young Western women are joining their ranks to bear children for jihadists. A small group of ultraconservative Salafists, wearing vests with the words "Sharia Police", have been telling people in the German town of Wuppertal not to drink or listen to music. German media and official circles are outraged.

Fanaticism of this kind is irrational and therefore difficult to check. Yet, if the IS is not checked, much of the world's population may be beheaded. What the West can do is to learn from its blunders. It must know that concentration on military action alone will make matters worse. The US must recognise that its "allies" have been actively contributing to the growth of radicalism and, through it, the rise of terrorism. Saudi Arabia began the process some decades ago by providing funds to spread its version of intolerance, Wahabism. Pakistan, obsessed with India, has directly nurtured terrorist groups with American funds and equipment. Saudi evangelism and Pakistani adventurism provided outlets to a young generation disillusioned by the crass materialism of the West and by poverty in Asia. Corrective action can be meaningful only when the roots of the problem are pulled out. Pruning some branches will fool nobody.

Monday, September 29, 2014

To promote development we need not destroy nature; Just enforce the laws decreed by Arthasastra

Kedarnath. Then Kashmir. The earth ploughed up into a shambles, death and destruction everywhere, multitudes plunged into misery on a scale that moved the world. Yet, these were the lesser tragedies. The bigger one is that there will be more Kedarnaths and more Kashmirs, for we are too selfish a people to learn lessons from experience. We plunder nature, upsetting the systemic order on which life on the planet is balanced. When catastrophe strikes, the price is paid by ordinary people, not the privileged plunderers. So plundering resumes. This is the tragedy of those who refuse to see that by destroying our todays we cannot build our tomorrows.

The causes of recent disasters tell their own tale. In mountains and planes, geography had provided for excess water to escape through natural drainage channels like rivers, low-lying wetlands and crevices between rock formations. Under the pressure of development these escape channels steadily disappeared. Half the lakes in Srinagar have been filled up and converted into residential and commercial areas.

This is an all-India pattern. In Udaipur, the city of famous lakes, encroachment was so blatant that the Rajasthan High Court declared lake shores as "no construction zones". That was in 1997. The court order was so widely ignored that encroachment in shores and catchment areas steadily increased: 374 hectares in 2002, 665 in 2006 and 863 in 2009. Builders could defy the court openly because they had political backing. Bangalore has no rivers, so its founders and progressive maharajahs had built a string of lakes, locally known as tanks. There were 280 tanks in the 1960s, and only 80 in 1993. Vembanad lake in Kerala is not only majestic in its spread and beauty; it is also the livelihood of thousands of families living on its shores. But the lake has shrunk from 366 sq. km to 200 and what is left is so polluted and silted up that experts predict the possibility of the lake drying up in the next 50 years. Hyderabad city was devastated by floods in 2000 because water bodies like Masab Tank were turned into residential areas. Bombay city was ravaged by flash floods in 2000 as the Mithi river, traditionally a storm water drain, had become a stagnant sewer. Even as the construction boom blocked the natural escape routes of water, "heavy rain events" dumped vastly increased quantities of water on earth because of abnormal increase in carbon emissions. In some Himalayan regions rainfall has been 400 percent above normal.

Much of the construction-prompted destruction takes place with government support, the magic word being "development". In the Manmohan Singh government, after Jairam Ramesh took some steps to protect the environment, he was removed from the ministry. When his successor, Jayanti Natarajan, tried in her own way to protect some forests, she was removed too. According to Manmohan Singh, industrialists and investors must have all the freedom to do what they like with geography because they assured GDP growth, nothing else mattered to the economist.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi rode to power on the very slogan of development. He has been taking bold steps on many policy fronts. How will he tackle the conflict between development and nature? His Ministry of Earth Sciences recently launched a plan to study the increased frequency of extreme weather events in the country. That was a good sign. A bad sign was the reconstitution of the National Board for Wildlife avoiding the mandatory number of non-government specialists. The Supreme Court stayed the decisions of the new Standing Committee. Other bad signs: The Ministry of Environment and Forests announced several controversial concessions to the coal industry. Laws pertaining to environment and forests are being examined with a view to "bringing them in line with current requirements". The National Green Tribunal, boldly independent till now, is suddenly under pressure.

A country can be industry-friendly without destroying nature. The US, after obliterating a lot of forests in the early years, now ensures 33 percent forest cover. In India it is 21 percent although the National Forest Policy mandates it to be 33 percent. Unlike the US, we have the backing of an ancient culture. All we have to do is to pay heed to the laws clearly outlined in the Arthasastra. Namely: "For cutting of the tender sprouts of fruit trees or shade trees, a fine of six panaas will be imposed. For cutting their minor branches, twelve panaas and for cutting the big branches 24 panaas shall be levied". That's wisdom.

Monday, September 22, 2014

China needs to see India as an equal. Economic ties are no substitute to solving border problems

It's a remarkable coincidence that Narendra Modi and Xi Jinping are brothers cast in the same mould. Both are believers in centralised authority, who spent their initial months in office consolidating their hold on the power structure. Both seek enlarged international status for their countries and for themselves. Both are fighters behind their smiles. Both are shrewd with the capacity to be, when necessary, ruthless. Both manoeuvre and manipulate with skill. Preparatory to his meeting with Xi, Modi did some manoeuvres with Japan, Australia and Vietnam all of which challenged China's stated positions. Preparatory to his meeting with Modi, Xi did some manoeuvres with Maldives, Sri Lanka and in Ladakh all of them aimed at intimidating India.

Then came Sabarmati. Majestic, peaceful Sabarmati, its waters twinkling in myriad lights, its banks bedecked with spectacular displays, Gujarat's finest art, culture and cuisine on show. No visiting dignitary has ever received so warm and so personal a reception from the Prime Minister of India as Xi received from Modi in Ahmedabad. Everything was so companionable that it would not have surprised anyone if star singer Peng Liyuan, Xi's wife, had broken into an operatic number.

But harsh facts remained. The relationship between India and China is unequal -- in China's favour. This is so at diplomatic and economic levels. Never has a top Chinese leader visited India without including nearby countries in his itinerary; India is for them one among many. Never has an Indian leader visited China except on a stand-alone basis; China is never one among many. India exports virtually nothing to China while more than 10 percent of India's total imports is from China, making us an economic dependency of China. Traditional local industries like Sivakasi's fireworks were devastated by cheap Chinese imports.

Most importantly, China's border politics is intriguingly aggressive. Every time a senior Government leader arrives from Beijing, there is a sudden rush of demonstrative "incidents" in Ladakh, this time more demonstrative than before. Xi is the head of China's military and intelligence establishments as well and he could have easily kept the border peaceful at least during the three days he was in India. But he stuck to the familiar pattern of visits coinciding with incursions. Why? Was it China, timeless and unchanging China, expressing itself as was always its wont, Xi or no Xi?

Modi described India and China as two bodies, one spirit. That's wrong. China's spirit is singularly different from India's. For some six millenia the Chinese have seen their country as the Middle Kingdom, the central point of the world (then considered flat). This developed into a national pride unmatched in the world. Xi himself said, when he was Vice President, that national pride "is the historical driving force" of China.

Narendra Modi cannot make that claim for his country. We only have to look at sports to see the contrast. China attained glory with the Olympics in 2008 because even Beijing's street sweepers took it into their heads that the prestige of their country depended on how well they did their job. Corrupt politicians shamed India with the Commonwealth Games. Inefficient bureaucrats messed up the accreditation papers of several Incheon-bound athletes, including star shooter Abhinav Bindra. Modi may talk about new work ethics, but our national characterlessness goes on.

The silver lining is that for the first time in many years the two countries have strong leaders at the helm with the mandate to take bold action. They can achieve what their predecessors could not. But only if Xi is ready to see India as an equal to China, and Modi gives up what some Hindutva hardliners called his "over-effusiveness" towards China. Modi can follow two lines. First, firm up India's relations with ASEAN countries, especially Vietnam, who are resentful of China's attempt to lord it over them. This can be done without going to the extent of doing what China does by equipping Pakistan against India. Secondly, take up China on its declaration that "we are prepared to reach a final settlement" on the border issue. What kind of final settlement? Drawing a line in Ladakh where none exists is one thing, it is quite another to replace a line that already exists along the Arunachal Pradesh border. The most important point is that no meaningful relationship is possible between the two countries if the border tensions continue. History's call to Modi and Xi is clear. Will they rise to it? That depends on whether they are politicians or statesmen.